Israel Education: A Growing Forest

by Anne Lanski

We hear a lot of exciting news these days about individual projects in Israel Education. It seems like every week something new is happening. There are programs for day school educators, supplementary school educators, youth professionals, camp educators, rabbinic students, graduate students, and teens. Organizations as diverse as BBYO, Yeshiva University, the Union for Reform Judaism, and the Foundation for Jewish Camp are focusing financial and human resources on new Israel education initiatives. The Taglit Fellows program is poised to catalyze even greater growth. And the Government of Israel’s planned initiatives will inject a powerful new stream of energy into the field. As I have written before, this is an exciting time for Israel Education.

As incredible as this proliferation of individual initiatives is, it’s also important to step back for a moment and appreciate not just the individual trees, but the growing forest they comprise. When we pause to take in the expanse, we can appreciate just how far we’ve come as a field in the last several years – to a new level of strength, maturity, and sophistication.

This particularly struck me a few weeks ago, as the iCenter ran simultaneous seminars for two of our most intensive initiatives. While 60 graduate and rabbinic students from 10 different campuses gathered in Chicago for a Masters Concentration in Israel Education seminar, over 172 directors, staff and educators from 27 camps convened in Maryland for their seminar in the Goodman Camping Initiative in Modern Israel History, run in partnership with the Foundation for Jewish Camp. During those days, a total of 250 educators and faculty from every sector of Jewish life were involved in intensive, immersive professional development around Israel Education. That’s unprecedented and something to celebrate.

Beyond this, though, it’s important to note the values and substance of these gatherings. Both of them embodied the iCenter’s Aleph-Bet of Israel Education: creating learner-centered, content-rich environments for educators to further develop their own personal connections with Israel and explore resources and approaches for bringing Israel into their work with youth. Both included not only North American educators talking about Israel, but Israeli educators learning with their North American colleagues.

For many of the Goodman camps, Israel has become not only a rich part of their daily life, but an entryway into a richer, thicker sense of Jewishness. One camp director wrote to us that their participation in the Goodman initiative has led to “a metamorphosis from a camp that didn’t have a lot of Jewishness” to a new reality in which “we are living a Jewish life in ways that our community would have never guessed in years past. It is a most welcome change and I’m proud to be part of it while it is happening.”

As iCenter board member and Jim Joseph Foundation Executive Director Chip Edelsberg, who attended the Masters Concentration seminar, noted on his blog, the result of these programs is “to institutionalize Israel education in training programs for professional educators and embed substantive Israel education in a cross-section of settings.” Approaching Israel Education in this way, Jewish educators come to see Israel as a powerful portal of Jewish education while developing authentic voices as educators, and while nurturing connections across institutions, denominations, and generations.

The beat goes on. In the coming days the iCenter will co-sponsor, with the World Zionist Organization and the Government of Israel, “The First International Dialog on the Israel Educator” a major international convening in Israel of 142 Jewish educators dedicated to Israel education. In August, the first 100 Taglit Fellows – selected from nearly 1,000 applicants! – will begin their training, which will quickly lead to deeper Israel Education not only on Taglit-Birthright Israel trips, but in every other environment in which they work as Jewish educators throughout the year.

Our work, along with the numerous other initiatives in Israel Education, is bearing fruit. Now is a time to pause and admire the field taking shape, and then to go back into it and, in the words of Marge Piercy, “Keep reaching out, keep bringing in,” as we work towards the harvest yet to come.

Anne Lanski is executive director of the iCenter, the national hub and catalyst for advancing and supporting the field of pre-collegiate Israel education.